How to Say Sorry: Teaching Children to Apologize
A friend’s eight-year-old son is still developing his ability to regulate his emotions. He can go from being ecstatic, to devastated, to furious, in the span of a few minutes.
During one pre-dinner meltdown last week, he started yelling and kicking his toys around the room. After he calmed down, his mom asked him to clean up the mess he made.
“Sorry, Mama,” he said as he cleaned up.
The child admitted he was wrong by apologizing, but will an apology prevent the situation from happening again? What does a parent do when “I’m sorry” isn’t enough?
Parents often ask our parent coaches how to handle it when their child’s outbursts or behaviors cause real damage—either physical or emotional. In these situations, a simple apology isn’t enough for the child to make amends.
Cleaning up a messy room is one thing, but as kids grow up, the “messes” they make can grow with them. In order to develop effective problem-solving skills for adulthood, kids need to take an extra step and explain what they’ll do differently next time.
Here are three ways you can teach your child how to apologize, learn accountability and develop problem-solving skills.
1. Watch out for, “I’m Sorry But…”
Kids (and adults!) can use an apology as a way to justify their behavior or place blame on someone else. Take a look at these examples:
“I’m sorry, but you made me angry!”
“I’m sorry, but he started it!”
If your child falls into this habit, do not accept the apology. It’s great that they are remorseful for their behavior, but that is just the first step. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry, but…” a more effective statement is:
“It was wrong to… Next time…”
Here’s and example of what that sounds like:
“It was wrong to call you names. Next time I’ll walk away and take some space to get my emotions under control.”
It takes practice to change the “I’m Sorry But…” habit in children. To start, you can point out when it happens and require an “It was wrong to… Next time…” statement as part of a conversation around consequences, which should follow your child’s acting out behavior.
2. Add an Amends as Part of the Consequence.
Making amends simply means righting the wrong. If your son gets in trouble for his rude statements to a teacher, you can require that he write a letter of apology explaining how he’ll act differently in the future, in addition to the consequence he receives at school. If your daughter’s risky behavior results in damage to your car, you can restrict her driving privileges for a specific length of time and require her to do some work to pay for the damages.
3. Be Patient.
Children can do things that really hurt and disappoint us—it’s okay to feel sad or frustrated when this happens. Kids are not very patient with the discomfort that can come from seeing you upset. You’ll find them saying things like, “I said I was sorry…what else do you want?!” Give yourself some time. Once you give a consequence and require your child to make amends, you’ve done your part to address the situation. Find someone to talk to who can give you the support you need. Remember that the most powerful lessons come to us when things feel challenging.
For more on this topic, check out: Kids and Excuses: Why Children Justify Their Behavior.
Our online parent coaches are also here to help you develop a plan for disrespect, back talk, holding your child accountable and more. Click here to start talking with a parent coaching professional today.